DHAKA (AFP) – Bangladesh Monday approved a new labour law to strengthen employees' rights and improve workplace safety, following a factory building collapse that killed 1,129 people.
Parliament passed the "historic" legislation, drawn up in the wake of the factory collapse in April that spotlighted appalling conditions and the lack of rights for workers at the country's 4,500 garment factories.
The new law "ensured full trade union rights" for millions of labourers, including those in factories making clothes for Western retailers, the head of the parliamentary committee on labour issues said.
"The new laws are historic," Israful Alam told AFP.
Under the new law, workers no longer need approval from factory owners to form trade unions and insurance for workers is now also mandatory, Alam said.
Bangladesh, the world's second largest garment exporter, has been under intense international pressure to overhaul labour laws in the wake of the tragedy, one of the world's worst industrial disasters.
The United States last month cancelled a trade privilege for Bangladesh, alleging that it has not done enough to ensure workplace safety.
The new law says structural changes to factories will be banned without permission from government inspectors, amid concerns that new floors are often added to buildings, which cannot structurally support the extra weight.
The nine-storey Rana Plaza building collapsed on April 24 outside the capital Dhaka, trapping thousands.
Cracks had appeared in the building one day before it caved in, and three floors had been added over the years to the original structure, a move which investigators partly blamed for the tragedy.
Padlocking factory exit gates -- a common practice at plants -- is banned under the law following recent fires that killed workers unable to flee.
Local union leaders said they were studying the new legislation.
"We had raised some concerns. We hope they have addressed those issues. Otherwise this legislation will be a futile exercise," labour leader Wajedul Islam told AFP.
Bangladesh initially expressed outrage at US President Barack Obama's decision last month to cut duty-free access for some of its products.
But the country, desperate to persuade Western retailers to stay put, swiftly drew up legislative reforms.
Bangladesh is the world's second largest garment producer after China and the industry is the mainstay of the economy, accounting for 80 percent of the country's $25 billion annual exports.
Last week some 70 retailers mainly from Europe announced a safety plan for Bangladesh factories, while US and Canadian retailers announced a separate pact, amid concerns of a consumer backlash over the tragedies.